RVers Have Unique Identity, Outlook and Language
Ina Smith swept the mat lying outside the door to her compact recreational van. Her cat, Louise, slept inside.
Smith is a regular winter resident of Sebring, Fla. For 10 years she has repeatedly returned to the Highlands Wheels Estates — when she isn't exploring New Mexico or South Dakota or going to the races in Daytona in her Class B camper van.
"I like to travel," she said, "and as long as I have my health I will."
There are many people like Smith, people who live on wheels, always eager to drive around the next curve; always delighted to meet up with old friends, the Sebring News Sun reported.
The individuals, couples, and families who live in recreational vehicles exist in a parallel universe. RVers have an identity, outlook and language uniquely their own.
It is one reason the RV park and campground industry is weathering these difficult times.
"The worst is over," said Bobby Cornwell, spokesman for the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds. "With the economy and political situation the way they are things are unstable, but better than two years ago, much more positive. Of course, everybody wishes things were better, but given the economy, we're doing better than many other industries."
Linda Ekberg, at Holiday Oaks Old Plantation Avenue, agreed. "Last year we had a waiting list, this year we had late openings," she said. "We're filling them up, but we're usually filled, or have reservations booked, by September."
At Sunshine RV Park on State Road 70, Tim Duncan said, "Business is pretty good, but could be better. We're a little down. I'm hoping it snows — tons and tons of it."
Cornwell said two years ago the industry was hurting. Dealers selling new RVs were closing, as were some RV parks.
The recession caused the plunge in business. Now, changing technology winnows what is left.
With GPS systems, cell phones, iPads, cable and computers, customers often make reservations on the road, rather than in advance.
"A lot of people are calling at the last minute," said Pam Jessup of Bonnet Lake Camp Grounds.
Technology has changed the way parks do business too.
"A good 20% of our reservations are made online now," said Sue Lewis, who with her husband Jim, manages Highlands Wheel Estates.
She added, however, a bigger change was the park's website and advertising online.
Baby Boomers Hit the Road
Another shift is the Baby Boomers who are going on the road.
Cornwell said because of the economy, the big rise in numbers the industry expected did not materialize, but things would probably "equal out in the end."
When these younger retirees arrive at a park, however, they expect Wi-Fi and a cable television hookup — at a minimum.
"Parks are having to keep up with the times," Cornwell said.
Those that have chosen a resort destination model are typically doing the best, he added. Guests are looking for parks with swimming pools, top-notch facilities and opportunities for day trips.
In this regard, he said, Sebring has a lot to offer, with Disney and Universal an easy drive away. "Now that Lego Land's open, it's getting better and better and better."
Sue Lewis strongly agreed. "We're an hour and a half from Orlando or either coast. We have 11 miles of lakeside sidewalk and golf courses everywhere. Sebring is a great location. It's how we sell our park, 'Try Sebring'," she said.
The industry, said Cornwell, while well positioned, is still working its way back.
At the height of the recession, sales of RVs fell drastically. "Banks weren't making loans for houses, they sure weren't loaning money for RVs," he said. What RVs and trailers did sell were used. Cornwell added, however, that sales of new RVs are picking up, which bode well for parks and campgrounds.
Smith gave a tour of her rig — the van, with a cozy home inside, a car and a motorcycle. She described the freedom of the road — "You do whatever you want" — and the warm company of fellow travelers. "We become old friends," she said.
"You miss them when they become too old or too ill (to travel). You remember them."
She paused to glance around and added, "It makes you know your passing is brief, so you do your own thing."
That is the heart of the matter, and what keeps the industry alive.